After launching a slew of IMA hybrids between 2012 to 2014, Honda Malaysia (HM) has been resolute in its path to introduce more advanced versions of hybrid cars equipped with its Sport Hybrid Intelligent Dual Clutch Drive (i-DCD) system, especially the Honda City. The company has been going back and forth with the decision to launch the sedan here since 2014, things going quiet amid concerns relating to the dry dual-clutch transmission in Japan.

Well, Honda claims to have rectified the issue through an extensive two-year testing programme which was conducted in Malaysia. The study led to the strengthening of several components within the dry dual-clutch transmission, giving Honda a good enough reason to finally give the Jazz Hybrid and City Hybrid the green light for Malaysia. We are the only market outside of Japan to receive the hybrid duo.

Slotting in at RM89,200, the locally-assembled City Hybrid undercuts the range topping City V by RM2,800, which is incredible considering the breadth of upgrades that come with it. As a reference point, the 2012 Jazz Hybrid CKD was priced at RM89,900. This makes the City Hybrid one of the country’s most affordable hybrid vehicles on sale, second only to its new hatchback twin (2017 Jazz Hybrid, RM84,880), followed by the Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid HEV (base variant, RM100k).

Headlining change here is a new 1.5 litre Atkinson-cycle engine nestled under the hood. It’s a lean burn fuel injection (PGM-FI) DOHC unit, different from the 1.5 litre Otto-cycle SOHC engine found in the regular City. On its own, the former makes 110 PS and 134 Nm of torque (running a more fuel efficient cycle produces lower outputs), while the latter packs 120 PS and 145 Nm.

A single electric motor with 30 PS (22 kW) and 160 Nm is employed to assist the City Hybrid’s internal combustion engine (ICE), giving a total system output of 137 PS and 170 Nm. That’s well within the territory of 1.8 litre engines (down by just four PS and four Nm compared to the Civic 1.8), although a tad short compared to the Ioniq Hybrid’s combined 141 PS and 265 Nm output, which comes from a 1.6 litre direct-injection unit with a more powerful 44 PS/170 Nm motor.

Anyway, the i-DCD’s electric motor is state-of-the-art stuff, incorporating a new hot deformed neodymium magnet – which is said to have the highest magnetic force – that’s free from the use of toxic rare earth metals like dysprosium.

The magnet is jointly developed by Honda and Daido Steel, which apparently retains all the high heat resistance properties and magnetic performance required by a hybrid car’s electric motor. It is patented, of course, because the process of making such magnets without rare metals have never been achieved before.

Now, the motor makes twice as much power compared to the IMA system (30 PS/160 Nm versus 14 PS/78 Nm) while weighing just two kg more. It’s integrated into the transmission housing and is permanently attached to the first gear.

Juice comes from a 0.86 kWh lithium-ion battery pack that’s stored beneath the boot floor – the unit is lighter and more compact than the Jazz IMA’s 0.58 kWh nickel-metal hydride battery (42.5 kg vs 45 kg). The enclosing structure has been beefed up to protect it from catching fire in the event of a direct collision, and so far no such cases have been reported in over 860,000 units of i-DCD-equipped vehicles sold.

The thing with these batteries is that they’re widely stigmatised as costly to replace, but Honda claims the replacement rate is a lowly 0.103% out of 256,565 units of the similarly-powered Fit Hybrid in Japan, and it’s designed to last the car’s lifetime. Here, Honda Malaysia offers an eight-year, unlimited mileage warranty for the hybrid battery pack, and should it require a replacement after that, it will cost RM5,513 – not an exorbitant amount, and cheaper than the Hyundai Ioniq’s replacement battery (RM9,800), HM claims.

The battery’s worst enemies are extreme heat and cold, as well as stagnation. The battery risks being permanently damaged if charge levels remain too low for too long, usually over three months of non-usage. There’s even a warning chit glued to the underside of the hood explaining exactly this, advising owners to drive the vehicle for more than 30 minutes at least once every three months.

Power from the battery isn’t just supplied to the electric motor alone, but to the electric water pump and electric compressor. The latter, which costs RM4192.40 (with GST) to replace is no longer driven by the alternator, ensuring that the air-con will always introduce cold air into the cabin, even when the engine is off (when the vehicle is stopped or running in EV mode). Bet some of you are hearing the angels sing now, eh?

The new hybrid components contribute to a 69 kg weight gain over the petrol models, heavy enough to upset the car’s balance if not addressed accordingly. Mitigating efforts include retuning the front shocks and reinforcing the supporting A-pillars above them. The rear subframe benefits from improved rigidity and fatter dampers, yielding tangible gains in the ride and handling department. Honda even tightened the steering ratio by 15.6%, enhancing steering reaction for extra measure.

So, how does it drive, then? As with most recent hybrids, starting up in EV mode is a dead quiet affair. With enough charge, you can easily get one km of pure electric drive, two km at best if you’re easy on the throttle. The instant low-end torque helps get you up to speed with ease, thanks to the electric motor.

Transitioning between EV to ICE is as good as it gets, unobtrusive and with fairly faint vibrations. This “start-stop” function improves on the already impressive IMA system and is perceptibly more polished in execution compared to the coarser process in the Mazda2 and Mercedes-Benz A-Class.

There’s sufficient grunt at any speeds below the legal limit – the car pulls with pleasant vigour even in fourth gear at 80 km/h, albeit noisier than the SOHC engine – and only finds itself short of breath much later into illegal velocities. This has plenty to do with the new seven-speed dry dual-clutch transmission, now revised with shorter gearings to prevent slip and deliver a more engaging feel.

Honda engineers also cite increased reliability with this setup, an outcome achieved after doing over 7,000 km of unpremeditated “test drives” in Malaysia in the span of two years. Now you know why they’ve gone quiet. Some of the tests include crawling in heavy urban congestion, constant stop-go traffic, several runs to Genting Highlands and even a Hari Raya balik kampung trip.

Shift feel is very reminiscent to that of a conventional auto, fluid and predictable enough for just about anyone to get used to in next to no time, even if it’s your maiden encounter with twin-clutch gearboxes. Unlike its CVT-equipped siblings, there are physical cogs at work here, seven to be exact. This underscores the car’s sporty credentials (it’s called the City Sport Hybrid for good reason), with actual shifts overridable through the paddle shifters.

However, don’t expect DSG levels of snappiness here. It’s tuned to be a smooth operator and takes away the jerkiness typified by modern DCTs, especially in urban driving with frequent stop-go situations. But in most cases, the DCT is a breath of fresh air, and I’d pick this over a CVT any day. Besides, oil change intervals (using two litres of normal ATF, according to HM) for the DCT is at eight years (96 months) or 160,000 km compared to the CVT at two years (24 months) or 40,000 km. Also, no dreary CVT whine!

Once you’re in tune with the i-DCD powertrain, you should be able to get close to the claimed 4.0 litres/100 km fuel economy mark without too much trouble. We managed just 3.01 litres/100 km in a 50+ km fuel economy test over mixed roads in Kuala Terengganu, but of course your mileage may vary depending on your driving style.

In this case, frugal does not equal mundane, and the City Hybrid is certainly no regular econobox. Out on the B-roads is Mr Hyde’s turn to play – unleashing its full potential requires a simple push on the “S” button just northeast of the electronic shifter (unique only to the hybrid model). This sharpens throttle response and holds the rev higher, but gearshift pattern remains unaffected. Regardless of drive mode, there’s always drag when the revs hang, but this is used to charge the battery instead of laying it to waste.

The added body rigidity and larger shocks lend an obvious difference to the way it handles the bends compared to the regular petrol variant. It’s tighter on turn-ins, the tail follows with greater urgency and the quicker steering ratio administers a refreshing sense of thrill. Suffice to say, handling is much improved, perhaps closer to the Ford Fiesta than class leader Mazda2, although steering feedback leaves much to be desired. Yes, it’s quick to steer, but the disconnect is there, though far from being a deal-breaker for me.

It’s a flat-out B-segment tree hugger through and through, but those willing to give it a flex will be pleasantly thrilled by the heightened dynamic threshold. Stability at high speeds is also improved courtesy of the mechanical revisions. Speaking of which, there is a deliberate cut-off at 180 km/h to protect the battery from overheating.

The downside to all this suspension and rigidity tweaks is a firmer ride. Gone is the comfort and pliancy that existing City owners have become accustomed to. The dampers have a shorter travel distance, making road undulations feel more pronounced than the regular setup. It’s not punishingly harsh as the Volkswagen Vento 1.2 TSI, but still, be extra wary of potholes, guys.

Honda’s Sport Hybrid i-DCD system is laudable on many levels, but the greatest accomplishment to me is brake tuning. Hybrid cars typically feel detached and unnaturally mushy in this area, common even among premium makes, but not for the City Hybrid.

Brake modulation – ventilated discs up front, drums for the rear – feels surprisingly natural and intuitive, almost unlike a hybrid. Brake force is now managed by an electric servo and is controlled by the ECU, which constantly monitors speed and heat to give just the right amount of “feel” and feedback through the pedal. It also recoups energy (regenerative braking) better than conventional setups, Honda claims.

In terms of equipment, the City Hybrid mirrors the City E, with items like halogen reflector headlamps with LED DRLs and shark fin antenna. The hybrid also gets the 16-inch triple-five spoke alloys with 185/55R16 Goodyear Excellence tyres and LED tail lamps from the range-topping City V, but makes do without the LED headlamps, fog lamps (interesting omission there, Honda) and ducktail spoiler of the range-topper.

Also, there’s no blue tint to the headlamps like on the Insight and Jazz IMA this time around, with just plain old hybrid badging on each side of the front fender and tailgate to denote the variant.

Now, the City and Jazz models vary extensively in dimensions, but both are identically wide at 1,694 mm. According to Shugo Watanabe, Honda Malaysia’s executive coordinator for sales, marketing and dealer development, the reason is because of B-segment regulation constraints in Japan (which limits width to a maximum 1,695 mm), hence their slab-sided bodies. The good news is, that regulation has recently been lifted, allowing for more flexible body styling in models to come.

The cabin is largely unchanged from the E, fitted with keyless entry and start, paddle shifters, cruise control, touch-panel climate controls and the new 6.8-inch double-DIN head unit with reverse camera. The display unit isn’t the best in the class (that title belongs to the Mazda2), and is ironically less user friendly compared to the old seven-inch model.

The surrounding plastics are hard and loses out on the soft-touch dash pad of the V, although speaker count remains at six with decent audio reproduction and the fabric seats (leather is only on the V) are supportive enough for long drives, for both driver and passengers alike.

What’s unique here is a special instrument cluster dominated by a large central speedometer. To its left is a digital display showing charge/discharge levels, and the right a six-mode multi-info display, operated via a trio of buttons on the bottom right side of the wheel. The decision to retain the urethane steering wheel is particularly unacceptable – it’s thin and feels cheap, not something I’d enjoy grabbing onto for tens of hours a week. Also, there are only four airbags (dual front and side) here, equalling that of the City E.

Rear passengers benefit from twin air vents at the back of the centre console, below which are dual 12V sockets. Legroom is unaffected by the hybrid retrofitting, so it’s still the best in its segment. There’s an air inlet on the right to feed cold air into the battery compartment; necessary because it does get warm when the hybrid system gets pushed too hard.

Boot volume remains the same, as a class-leading 536 litres, although fitment of the lithium-ion battery beneath the boot floor means it has to make do without the space-saver spare wheel. Instead, you get a DIY temporary tyre repair kit comprised of an air pump and sealant liquid. It doesn’t take a genius to work it (we’ve got a video demonstrating just how below), but the temporary sealant is only good for punctures no bigger than four mm. If you get a blown sidewall, well, better have your tow truck on speed dial, then.

Considering all the upgrades the City Hybrid gets, it would’ve easily breached the RM100k mark, no doubt. Thanks to local assembly and Energy Efficient Vehicle (EEV) tax breaks, it is now one of the cheapest hybrids to ever grace the market, and it looks to stay that way for the foreseeable future.

There’s no hybrid-specific servicing required, which levels maintenance costs as per the rest of the City range (intervals remain at every 10,000 km). The car itself is given a five-year/unlimited mileage warranty, and a separate eight-year/unlimited mileage warranty covers the lithium-ion battery. The 12V starter battery used to power ancillaries is exactly the same as petrol variants, costing no more than RM200 to replace.

Former and existing owners of previous IMA hybrids will remember the ghastly invoice issued at every 100,000 km service. Those engines had eight separate spark plugs, two for each cylinder (the new one only has one per cylinder). The cost to replace the plugs alone was close to RM1,000, but now it’s half that.

The big question now is, between the City Hybrid and the City V, which should you buy? For hesitant/unwilling adopters of complex hybrid technology, the latter offers good value by way of equipment. It’s kitted with LED headlamps and fog lamps (first in class, now joined by the Mazda2 GVC), eight speakers (two more than the Hybrid) and curtain airbags, on top of everything else the City E gets.

On the other side of the fence, the City Hybrid’s value proposition and circumstantiated reliability should give it a solid footing to convince first timers to embrace electrification on a budget. Allow me to analogise; if I am really determined to dive into the world of horology, I’d start with a Seiko – cheap, reliable and doesn’t cost a pretty penny to keep the movement running. If the fascination persists, the eventual destination would be a Rolex and, fingers crossed, a Patek. Who knows? The point is, I know where to start. You get my drift?